Death and hope in Russia

Whither democracy and civil society in Russia? Recently, the liberal Duma (Parliament) deputy, Galina Starovoitova, was shot and killed in the stairwell of her apartment in St. Petersburg. As The Washington Post reported, she was an outspoken woman, defending liberalism and democracy and speaking out against the increasing anti-Semitism that has appeared in Russian politics. No one understood as well as she the problems of nationalism and ethnicity.

A few weeks ago, she led the drive to censure Albert Makashov, the Communist deputy who has called in recent days for the extermination of the Jews in Russia and has blamed “yids” for destroying the country.

As of yet, the suspects – a man and a woman – have not been found. The record of Russian police in solving high-profile murders has not been encouraging; one can only recall how the political killings of the last few years have gone unsolved: Vladislav Listyev, the investigative television journalist, Father Alexander Men, the Orthodox priest, and so on.

Swift justice is but one of the hallmarks of a working civil society; the record here shows that there is none in Russian society. The only society that exists now is a criminal society, a society in which the Mafia rule and the so-called “thieves in law” run loose.

But is civil society dead in Russia? Not quite. While the latest political killing is a shock to all the forces of liberalism and democracy in Russia, civil society is not dead yet. Russia has come too far since 1991 to revert back to the past. The fact that there are people in the country willing to take a stand and defend liberal ideas and democracy shows there is some sort of civil society. Moreover, there are all sorts of political parties operating, as well as a free press – none of these would have been allowed under communism. Most Russians would rather not see the Soviet Union resurrected.

All Russia mourns the death of one of its most powerful female politicians. There is a sorrow in the heart of supporters of liberal democracy, a sorrow that will not go away until her murder is solved and Russia is once again on the path to liberalism and a working civil society. This is not, and should not be, the death knell for liberal Russia, much as the Communists and some forces in the West would no doubt like it to be, but it is, and must be, a lesson on the painful path to liberalism and civil society.

Still, Russia’s future and political fate depend on the courage of Duma deputies, not only to denounce Makashov in the strongest terms possible, but also to sincerely begin to rid the country of criminals, to start anew and to speak out against anti-Semitism and neo-fascism. Given the instability of the country and these recent events, they must make this their priority.

The West, for its part, must move to condemn Starovoitova’s murder and continue to support Russia’ s nascent civil society. Only then will justice be done to Starovoitova’ s memory and liberalism in Russia will be preserved.

-The writer is a graduate student in international affairs specializing in Russia.

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